Highway Ulysses takes the audience on a journey both sociological and surreal. Moreover, it’s an odyssey dreamed by its own siren: the composer, writer, and performer Rinde Eckert. Collaborating closely with American Repertory Theatre artistic director Robert Woodruff, Obie winner Eckert has recast Homer’s epic account of the Greek hero Odysseus’s long jaunt home from the Trojan War in the equally long shadow of Vietnam and a musical idiom that mixes jazz, blues, rock, and new opera. The result, the first ringing announcement of Woodruff’s tenure at the ART, is bleakly compelling — though not a road trip tailored to your grandfather’s Oldsmobile. Not even if your grandfather is ART paterfamilias Robert Brustein.
In this American odyssey conjured by classically trained experimental musician Eckert and assertive director Woodruff, Ulysses is a post-traumatic-stress-disordered war veteran, more officer than gentleman, a hoarder of weapons and violent memories. Unemployed and shacked up with a girlfriend, he receives a call in the middle of the night and must set out to retrieve the son he doesn’t know, since the boy’s mother has died. Meanwhile, stage right, seated at the head of a flotilla of computers, the son awaits, tapping into a keyboard contradictory expectations of the absent father — a liar, a hero — that unfold on a screen overhead.
But the piece, which is not modeled exactly on the Odyssey, does not begin there. As the audience files in, the cast are already on stage, guests mingling at a nuptial stand-in for Homer’s Phaeacia, where the shipwrecked Odysseus washes ashore and recounts his adventures since the war. Here the old soldier totals his car and is discovered by a character called the Bride, who " went down to the stream/to cool her feet, " as she explains in jazzy recitative. She drags the sleeping Ulysses back, deposits him on a couch, and proceeds to sing us the story she claims he has told her.
In Woodruff’s fluid, multi-layered production, this seedy, troubling yarn unfolds against a wall of dissonant melody and a largely transparent set by opera designer David Zinn (who also designed the costumes), a looming thing of moving parts and unfolding graffiti. Numb and smoldering, the damaged Ulysses visits a diner where he listens to a waitress’s plaintively sung fantasy of waterlogged isolation and beats a hovering fellow vet senseless. He’s held captive by a Cyclops-eyed librarian with a rifle and a set of first-edition Nancy Drew. And he drifts into a Beckettesque tattoo parlor where a needle-brandishing Circe and a mushroom-induced trance take him to the Underworld. There, in a strident, climactic trio, he squares off with the shade of his ex-wife over the fate of their son, for whom she wants none of his legacy of " emptiness, defeat, and violence. "
Indeed, a central concern of Highway Ulysses is our national heritage of so-called righteous violence. The piece did not set out, Eckert has said, to be about war, but between the intrusions of Homer and September 11, with the current crisis over Iraq threatening to create yet another generation of battle-haunted vets, who’s surprised that it gravitated there? Or that, at the center of the piece, Thomas Derrah’s emotionally shutdown Ulysses is as much absence as presence, his pain manifested mostly in his singing?
This piece, which was built from scratch for the ART, is cast with a company that includes musically adroit stalwarts Derrah, Will LeBow, and Karen MacDonald, as well as Heather Benton, Michael Potts, Eckert himself, and sumptuous mezzo Nora Cole. The result is a curious mix of barren formality and what sounds almost like improvisation — quirky riffs on alienation, both spoken and sung, with most of the score consisting of now melodic, now abrasive recitative. The music sits particularly well on the boy-sopranoish voice of Dana Marks as the son and on Eckert, who as a dead soldier in a back corner blankets the Underworld scene in falsetto chant.
Under the musical direction of keyboardist Peter Foley, the music is played by the Cambridge-based band Empty House Cooperative, who are fronted by David Curry (he plays everything from the theremin to the singing saw) and guitarist and percussionist Chris Brokaw, with Jonah Sacks on cello and guitar. Often the score interposes a melodic vocal line on an anxious instrumental one. Laurie Anderson comes to mind, as do Philip Glass, Kurt Weill, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and the Doors. Eckert is nothing if not eclectic.
I don’t know whether Highway Ulysses is a work for the ages; some of this lost soul’s fever dream is just too loopy. The piece is episodic, and those insufficiently familiar with Homer might find it arbitrary. But in merging the troubling figure of Ulysses, the fabled hero who is also cruel and dissembling, with that of the dangerous, battle-damaged Vietnam vet, Highway Ulysses puts forward an image both disturbing and cautionary. As he slinks across the play’s nightmare landscape toward responsibility, dragging his baggage of duty and sacrifice and bottled-up rage, just what is the road warrior bringing his son?